Let me begin with a few notes on some of the real people depicted in last year’s Oscar-nominated films. All but one of the following were nominated for Best Picture.
“Ford v. Ferrari”
Carroll Shelby was a 7-times-married “notorious womanizer” who was sued for sexual harassment and accused of sexual battery. I’m not willing to do a real deep dive for a free newsletter, so I’ll just point out that he was a rich, macho, white Texan in the middle of the 20th century and let you make whatever assumptions you might, fair or not, about his commitment to racial diversity. In this movie, he is the good guy.
Frank Sheeran, the protagonist, was a mob hitman who claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa. According to the book on which “The Irishman” is based, Sheeran also claimed that he developed his taste for killing during World War II, when he participated in multiple war crimes. The best thing you can say for Frank Sheeran is that he might have been lying about how many people he killed, and how gruesomely.
“The Two Popes”
Pope 1: Benedict XVI, a.k.a. Joseph Ratzinger, a former (reportedly unwilling, granted) member of the Hitler Youth who, as Cardinal and Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, punished liberation theologians, demanded secrecy around investigations of child sexual abuse, and described gay marriage as one of several “pseudo-matrimonies” that are “contrary… to human love.” Pope 2: Francis, who commissioned a report that said his friend, convicted child abuser Father Julio César Grassi, was innocent and his multiple victims were liars; kept his mouth shut during Argentina’s Dirty War; fought U.S. nuns for focusing too much on social justice, not enough on ending abortion; ruled out the possibility of female priests; and also spoke out against gay marriage. And that one’s the woke pope!
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The protagonists are fictional, but many of the secondary characters are not. The main female character is real person Sharon Tate, who doesn’t actually speak, but looks very pretty and shows us her feet a lot before being brutally murdered, along with two of her friends, by the Manson family. The movie ends with a stylized, semi-comic bloodbath in which the aforementioned fictional protagonists exact fictional revenge on the real murderers, who killed real people, who remain dead.
… is about a child whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler.
For the record, I loved “Ford v. Ferrari,” liked “Once Upon a Time,” did not care for “The Irishman,” haven’t seen the other two. Among the three I have seen, I’m pretty sure I could count the women with named speaking roles on one hand.
That’s something we’re not supposed to consider when evaluating a film’s greatness. It’s a mob movie, so of course women aren’t main characters. It’s a race car movie, so of course women aren’t main characters. It’s a war movie (“1917” was also nominated for Best Picture), so of course women aren’t main characters. It’s set in the twentieth century, before anyone knew women were human, so of course women aren’t main characters. You can’t hold that against Hollywood!
Here is where I remind you that the famed “Bechdel Test” only asks that two female characters have names and speak to each other about something other than a man. No requirement for length of screen time, depth of character, agency, etc. Two helpless women in need of rescue by a male hero could introduce themselves to each other, say they’re really scared, and you’d have a Bechdel Test-passing film.
Four out of ten of the films nominated for Best Picture last year did not pass. Only one was actually about women. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood technically passed. Just keep all that in mind.
Now let’s talk about “Mrs. America,” the new Hulu show about the U.S. women’s liberation movement, in which Cate Blanchett stars as professional anti-feminist troll Phyllis Schlafly. I was especially excited to watch it because Emily Nussbaum, with whom I have never disagreed on TV, raved about it on Twitter. But then the backlash came, starting with a Buzzfeed piece by Pier Dominguez that laments the “flattering light” cast on Schlafly. My Twitter feed followed suit with numerous variations on, “Ugh, why would I want to watch Phyllis Schlafly?”
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t want to watch actual Phyllis Schlafly, and I felt a happy little flutter in my heart when she died. What I do want to watch are well-written narratives about women’s experiences, acted by people I always want to see on screen—Blanchett! Uzo Aduba! Rose Byrne! Margo Martindale!—especially when they tell the history of a time that’s still incredibly near, yet just outside my own living memory. Men’s media has taught us time and again that it’s possible to tell great stories about terrible people. I saw no reason why foregrounding Schlafly, who led the vigorous and wildly successful opposition to the ERA, would necessarily make “Mrs. America” unwatchable.
Dominguez compares “Mrs. America” to "Bombshell,” a movie about the Fox News women who led their own #MeToo uprising. If I thought the two properties were actually similar in concept or viewpoint, I wouldn’t want to see the former either. I love Charlize Theron, but not enough to watch her turn Megyn Kelly—who publicly insisted that both Santa and Jesus are white; defended the use of blackface; disparaged Sandra Bland for not obeying the police who were responsible for her death; frequently invited Mark Furhman on her show; described the black community as having a “thug mentality”; et fucking cetera—into a hero.
But the Schlafly of “Mrs. America” is not a hero, or even an antihero as I mistakenly thought, based on the Buzzfeed piece calling her one. I couldn’t fit my name into the top of the screenshot, but these tweets are all me:
Schlafly’s the main point-of-view character in the first episode of “Mrs. America,” as Gloria Steinem is in the second, and Shirley Chisholm is in the third. Having now watched all three currently available episodes, I see that first one as belonging to another genre everyone seems to love when it’s about men: the villain’s origin story. (Also nominated for best picture last year: “The Joker.”)
Schlafly, like her pro-feminist counterparts (and Megyn Kelly and Alison Bechdel and every woman, then and now) is a victim of patriarchal constraints. The show opens with her onstage in an American flag bikini at a fundraiser for the ever-odious Phil Crane, and subsequent conversation suggests that prominent Illinois conservatives’ wives take turns enduring this public humiliation. Phyllis has a sharp mind for politics and a master’s degree. She wants to run for Congress, but her husband won’t abide her leaving the children for D.C. She’s a natural leader and organizer, author of a successful newsletter, generally a go-getter. She’s also a Catholic wife and mother who believes, on some level, that her place actually is in the home. Phyllis is frustration personified.
There are a lot of ways a woman could go from that point. Joining the feminist movement would be one! Another would be sucking it up and being grateful that her life, however personally limiting, is extremely comfortable, unlike many women’s. Instead, she makes a choice that’s still common enough today: playing the “good girl,” strategically manipulating people to get what she wants, and denouncing feminism, all the way to the top. She fulfills herself by building a career out of bullhorning that women don’t need careers to be fulfilled—and meanwhile, a black maid takes care of her household.
That’s a fascinating villain. Awful person; fascinating villain.
And it seems clear as the story goes on that that’s exactly who she is, primary antagonist to our actual heroes: the flawed, messy, constantly arguing National Women’s Political Caucus (founding members Steinem, Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Jill Ruckelshaus, and Florynce Kennedy have shown up so far) and the women’s movement more generally. I’ll try not to gush about the second and third episodes too much here, lest I spoil it all, but Uzo Aduba as Chisholm had me in real tears more than once.
The depth of character development in just a few episodes is remarkable. The feminist characters are allowed to be smart, funny, furious and—this is huge—sometimes clearly wrong, especially in retrospect, without turning into villains. The main few are given identifiable central desires that put them in conflict with each other, while Schlafly’s organization remains the Big Bad opposed to them all. (I mean, patriarchy is the actual Big Bad, but you know.) Abzug wants to work within the system to increase women’s power via Democratic Party politics. Chisholm wants to challenge the system—and the feminist movement that offers her only tepid, conditional support—to take a black woman candidate seriously as more than a symbol. Steinem wants legal abortion and will make no concessions on that point; when people draft her to lead, she reluctantly uses the power to push her lifesaving agenda. Friedan, meanwhile, desperately wants to be leader of the movement, but everyone else sees her as an old-fashioned hothead who sometimes does more harm than good when she opens her mouth. The internecine battles feel so real, and still so relevant.
Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to appear in the STOP ERA movement. To wit, there’s an openly white supremacist strain that threatens to make the rest of them look bad. And it’s not necessarily that Schlafly disagrees with her fellow housewives who talk about saving the white race from “uppity negroes”—the show hasn’t shown us one way or another, so far—but that she thinks they’re “vulgar.” She knows it won’t play on TV. And she has to decide if she needs them anyway.
IT’S JUST SO GOOD, YOU GUYS.
It’s so good that I’ll be mad forever about people casually dismissing it for making Schlafly a fully rounded character. Especially when I know there’s overlap there with people who loved “The Irishman,” which, again, is a 17-hour film about a real man who murdered people for a living. I can’t and won’t say much for Phyllis Schlafly the actual person, but I can say she was a human being, so it doesn’t bother me that the show treats her as one. If she were a one-dimensional villain, the story wouldn’t be nearly as compelling.
And the fact is, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to sympathize even slightly with them, middle-class white women who work to uphold patriarchy still suffer from it. That’s what makes their choices—like 53% of them voting for Donald Trump in 2016—so maddening. They are actively choosing to hurt themselves along with all the other people we might expect them to hurt.
White supremacy explains a lot (a lot a lot a lot), but what “Mrs. America” illustrates brilliantly is the cognitive dissonance element. I’m smart, I’m bored, I could be doing so much more with my life, but I really do love my husband and kids. I want to feel a part of something larger, but my god says I already am, by fulfilling my role as a wife and mother. I don’t feel particularly oppressed, but I also have to ask my husband’s permission to spend money. I don’t feel trapped, per se, but if I tried to leave, I would have no savings, no income, no home, and no support from my faith community.
Then feminists come along and say, “Actually, lady, you are oppressed, you are trapped, you deserve to do more with your brain, and your god sucks.” That’s not a satisfying answer to you—in fact, it rather hurts your feelings—but it does present a new option: make feminists your enemy and organize against them! Suddenly, you’re using your brain, using your voice, learning new skills, and engaging in politics, but all in a way that somehow also makes you an exemplary wife, mother, and homemaker. Powerful men love you for it. You really can have it all.
It’s gross. It’s disappointing. And it’s extremely real. Schlafly’s dead, but her Eagle Forum still exists, led by her hand-picked successor. The ERA only passed in Illinois in 2018, more than thirty years after the deadline to ratify it and long after the deaths of Chisholm, Abzug, Friedan, Kennedy, and so many others who fought for it.
The past isn’t past. Women aren’t cartoons. Feminism isn’t a monolith, and neither is the opposition to it. Good people compromise their values. Bad people suffer real pain. And all of that can make for brilliant storytelling in the right hands.